Monday, July 18, 2022

The Omnivore's Dilemma

The farm we picture as the source of our food, with various animals frolicking and grazing around different crops, is no longer our actual source of food. Various market and non-market forces have pushed our farms into becoming something else. It is this something else that Michael Pollan discovers and reveals to us in the fantastic book The Omnivore's Dilemma

The book starts with a deep dive on corn, as corn has become the input for much of the other ingredients in our food chain (from the vast majority of diets for the animals we eat, to the hard-to-read ingredients on everything you buy at the supermarket). Corn has a special ability to breathe in 4 molecules of carbon at a time as opposed to 3, allowing it to convert more water into plant matter than other crops. This advantage, combined with a trend towards monoculture - the cultivation of a single crop in a given area - has helped make corn an unstoppable behemoth among US crops.

Monoculture was greatly helped by the invention of mechanized farm machinery, which is much more efficient when dealing with a single crop. With the increased use of machines, horses were no longer needed. Without the need for horses, farms no longer needed to grow oats. And with the invention of artificial nitrogen fixers (using copious amounts of fossil fuels), farmers no longer needed their own source of fertilizer (e.g. manure) or crop rotation (since any lost nitrogen in the soil could be replaced). All of these factors have led to a massive monoculture of corn farms.

The farmer thus became dependent on corn. And like all commodities, its price fluctuates due to factors outside of the farmer's control. So in stepped the government to help cover losses. Those programs have now become a grant system that exacerbates the problem: the lower corn prices are, the more farmers are incentivized to grow corn, since it's subsidized. We're in a loop now where farmers are being paid to grow corn at a loss.

But monoculture is a problem. When you don't rotate, pests have an easier time, so more and "better" pesticides need to be used. Corn genes are selected instead for their abilities to withstand pests, and/or work well with farm machinery. This is not a kind of corn that humans can even eat; it needs to be processed first. This is hardly likely to be a healthy food that we have evolved to eat.

Finding consumption sources for all this inedible corn has become very profitable. So the diet of our animals has been switched to corn. But they're not used to this diet, so they're sicker than they used to be. They're also living in squalid conditions on feed lots where they live in their own filth, requiring antibiotics as part of their regular diets. For economic reasons, we want them to get bigger faster, so their cornmeal/antibiotic diet is supplemented with fat and protein growth hormones. As a result of all these changes, are we eating the same animals we evolved to eat? Likely not.

Organic farming grew as a response to this kind of industrial farming. But the organic farms have become very similar to the mainstream farms. They have been purchased by the industrial food conglomerates and behave very similarly apart from the lack of pesticides, which is only one of the problems with the food industry.

But there is another way. Pollan describes a group of farmers who call themselves grass farmers. They use movable fencing to rotate cows through different grass fields. The cows feed on their natural diet, and their manure helps the grass grow once they move on to the next field. A moveable chicken coup is brought in 3 days later. The chickens help spread the cow manure and they also eat a more natural diet including grass and insects. The farmer has to buy very few inputs, and so this is a more sustainble form of farming.

The book was highly educational, and so I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in where their food comes from. The main criticism I have is that it does not recognize the value of the extremely high increase in yields that farming has achieved over the century. There are an immense number of people in the world that need cheap food, and the industry is doing its best to meet this need. For the lucky/affluent, we can afford to pay more for sustainable and healthier foods (and this book has inspired me to seek out such sources and to do so), but I would be hesitant to make rules that deny choice and make it harder for the industry to meet the demands/needs of the poor.


No comments: